What I learned about governance, soft power and ambassadogs from the Monocle guide to nation-building


Review: How to Make a Nation, A Monocle Guide

20th June 2016
By Mark O'Connell

I do not presume to imagine myself part of the target demographic of Monocle, Tyler Brûlé's high-end hybrid of travel magazine, international affairs journal, and shopping catalogue. I do not, for instance, divide my time between Berlin and Rio, or Helsinki and Los Angeles. I have never seen the inside of an international airline's executive lounge. And although I am by no means hostile to contemporary Danish furniture design or Japanese high-speed trains or South Korean dried seaweed, I find myself unable to whip up much enthusiasm for these things. And yet, even as its content has mostly failed to capture my imagination, I have always been fascinated by the magazine itself – by the muted enthusiasm of its house style, the sumptuousness of its paper stock, the obscurely comic cosmopolitanism of its editorial outlook. This has a lot to do with the fact that, although it styles itself as a 'briefing on global affairs', it is fastidiously indifferent to the lives of any but the most affluent of the world's inhabitants. There is something compelling, and perhaps finally instructive, about the ongoing spectacle of that obliviousness.

A few months ago, I was flipping through a copy of The Forecast, Monocle's new bumper annual publication, when I came across a short piece about "a new breed of foreigners known as 'roamers'… actively seeking out lives abroad". The article advised that "the cities in which they settle should embrace them". For a moment, I thought this might have been a reference to the Syrian refugee crisis, but the article merely glanced over its shirt collar (striped Italian Oxford, with "functional pocket that happily holds your passport"; £145 direct from Monocle.com) toward that vista of human and moral wreckage before addressing its true subject: "There are 232 million people living outside their home country today. While many of these people are immigrants, refugees and expats, there are millions of people who live abroad in a way that isn't explained by those narratives. Highly educated and globally minded, these foreigners make an active choice to live internationally so they can find better careers, more intellectual stimulation or simply more adventure abroad."

The article seemed to me a perfect instance of unwitting self-satire: here, in essence, was Monocle's tastefully branded worldliness, a worldliness devoid of any meaningful sense of what the world was actually like. (It's probably worth pointing out here that the word 'monocle', which refers to the cartoon plutocrat's eyewear of choice, comes from the Latin monoculus, meaning 'one-eyed'.)

Here, in essence, was Monocle’s tastefully branded worldliness, a worldliness devoid of any meaningful sense of what the world was actually like

And so there is something both completely counterintuitive and entirely inevitable about the existence of How to Make a Nation: A Monocle Guide. Like everything Monocle publishes, it is a beautiful object: an elegantly produced, scrupulously designed clothbound coffee table book, filled with gorgeous photographs, attractive illustrations and tastefully functional prose.

Brûlé, in his brief preface, states the book's intentions: to "inspire state premiers, prefectural governors and chiefs of staff with examples of good government, smart investment and sustainable design", and to "inspire fresh thinking in corridors charged with improving daily life". (This preface opens, incidentally, with the most supremely Brûléan narrative gesture imaginable: he notifies us that, as he writes, he happens to be sitting "in a chocolate-and-caramel toned rail carriage hurtling along the Sanyo Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo". This reminded me of a line in Martin Amis's Money, where the narrator John Self advises us that "unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I'm always smoking another cigarette". Basically, unless Brûlé specifically informs us otherwise, we can assume he's always sitting in a chocolate-and-caramel toned rail carriage hurtling along the Sanyo Shinkansen line between Osaka and Tokyo.)

As with Monocle itself, the book is essentially an exercise in curation: it offers neither new ideas, nor in-depth analysis of existing ones, but presents examples from around the world of what works – effective governance, strong national identity, and so forth. But even at this curatorial level, the focus is overwhelmingly on aesthetic phenomena, the mere surface sheen of statehood. The section called "How to Govern", for instance, focuses on things like urban planning, the architecture of houses of parliament, and what kind of kit you should have in your presidential motorcade, rather than on any actual ideological structures that might be in place beneath these things.

As far as Monocle is concerned, making a nation is roughly the same sort of enterprise as building a new home, or putting together a winter wardrobe, or designing a headquarters for your international branding agency. There is precious little acknowledgement, in these 336 pages, of the violent oppressions, the revolutionary upheavals, that actual nation-making tends to entail.

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Egypt's president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does make an appearance in the book, for instance, but not in relation to the Arab Spring, or his leadership of the military coup that seized power in 2013, or his suppression of protest. Monocle is interested, rather, in his apparel of political power: "It's the sunglasses that make this outfit. Military uniform? Well, you'd expect that from a field marshal. The impressive-looking medals? This is a man who's been around a while. But the sunglasses? That extra touch takes El-Sisi from mere defence minister to full-on 'I'm in charge' dictator. It was El-Sisi's outfit – not his words – that signalled that Egypt's Arab Spring was over." And that's about as much as How to Make a Nation: A Monocle Guide has to say about Egypt's Arab Spring.

The more you engage with this coffee-table utopianism, the more you feel a creeping cognitive dissonance, a sense that the book's writers might be living in some kind of stylishly appointed parallel universe.

In an essay about the tolerance and good humour of contemporary Britain, there's the claim that "having been the original grand and nasty superpower… we're managing our decline with a shimmy and a rakish grin." It isn't the author’s fault, obviously, that I read this against the Conradian horrorscape of the Brexit moment; but the shortfall between the claim and the reality is, nonetheless, profoundly weird.

Elsewhere, we are advised on the importance of good design in healthcare, and told of a particular hospital outside Oslo where "soaring ceilings, long rows of windows, bespoke furniture and an impressive art collection" lifts the spirits of the sick. This sounds lovely, of course, but as an Irishman I'd settle, at least for the time being, for hospitals in which elderly patients weren't literally dying on trolleys in hallways as a direct result of specific economic policies.

For a self-proclaimed guide to nation-making, it's a weirdly apolitical and ahistorical construction

To the extent that the book reveals any stance on what makes a society liveable, it is probably fair to characterise it as a centre-left one. There is an insistence on the necessity of social welfare programs, on universal access to healthcare and education and so on. So from a broadly liberal perspective, you might generously conclude that Monocle's heart was at least in the right place, that its version of an ideal society is, more or less, Scandinavian-style social democracy. But Brûlé, and his team of editors and writers, don't have much to say about how these things are achieved, or fought for – any more than they have much to say about how all those high-end consumer products Monocle magazine enthuses about might be paid for.

There's a weird manifestation of this problem in a section called 'How to Promote Culture', where we are advised that nations with strong cultural presences need national museums and galleries, and generous arts funding. "Money, of course, can help," we are told – not all that helpfully. (This feels a bit like listening to an incredibly wealthy person talk about how money is useful – of course – but that it is by no means of paramount importance.)

For a self-proclaimed guide to nation-making, in other words, it's a weirdly apolitical and ahistorical construction. This is a book that has a great deal to say about the importance of ambassadors having the right kind of dog – there's literally an entire section on this, in which we are invited to "meet the ambassadogs who serve their nations faithfully" – but precisely nothing to say on the policies of economic austerity, or the ideologies that impel them. The word 'neoliberalism', for instance, appears zero times in this book, whereas I counted at least 80 usages of the word 'brand' or its derivatives ('branding', 'rebranding', and so on.)

And this, I suppose, is the point: Monocle's version of the nation state is not a political entity, the result of ideological victories and defeats, but a lifestyle brand.

There is a lot to be said for soft power, but the idea that it can be considered in isolation from hard power is a delusion. If you're going to devote four pages to the design of passport covers and banknotes, you should at least acknowledge that, say, homelessness exists, and that it exists for complex but nonetheless concrete social and political reasons. If you're going to speak with any authority about how the world should be, you should at least recognise how it actually is, and why it might be that way.

How to Make a Nation: A Monocle Guide, published by Gestalten, £40, out now


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